Three killed in 95-vehicle pileup on I-77

Allen WorrellCivitas News Service

April 1, 2013

FANCY GAP, Va. — According to the Virginia State Police, dense fog was the cause of a 95-vehicle pileup on Interstate 77 in Fancy Gap on Sunday that has claimed the lives of three and injured 30 others.

Spokesman Mike Conroy of the Virginia State Police said the pileup began at about 1 p.m. Sunday between mile markers 6 and 5 of the southbound lane of the interstate in Fancy Gap. In total, 95 vehicles were involved, three people were confirmed dead as of 4 p.m., and 30 more were transported to area hospitals to be treated for injuries, Conroy said, adding that there were 17 separate accidents in the pile-up. All occurred in the southbound lanes of I-77 towards the base of Fancy Gap Mountain. At the “epicenter” of the crashes was a six- to eight-vehicle crash in which the vehicles caught fire.

Since 5:47 a.m. Sunday, overhead message boards along I-77 had been advising motorists to slow their speed due to severe fog through the Fancy Gap Mountain area. The main cause of the crashes were motorists traveling too fast for conditions. At present, the fog has lifted and cleared.

Carroll County public school buses were used to transport motorists — not injured in the crashes but their vehicles were too damaged to drive away — to nearby hotels and other locations for shelter overnight.

“Fog was a major contributing factor. I am assuming it was one accident and then a cluster after that,” Conroy told The Carroll News on the scene.

The southbound lanes of I-77 were closed from Fort Chiswell to Exit 1 in Lambsburg, a stretch of about 30 miles, to allow wreckers, rescue workers and emergency personnel to reach the accident scene, which Conroy estimated stretched between a half and three-quarters of a mile.

“It’s the worst accident I’ve ever seen,” said Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Mike Musser at the scene.

Lee Lewis of Charleston, W.Va., was traveling to Hilton Head Island, S.C., when he saw the first accident unfold in front of him. He and his family were able to get out of the wreckage unscathed, but he said fellow motorists did not heed a posted message at the top of the mountain to slow down for dense fog.

“It was way too foggy and cars were going way too fast. I was going 40 to 45 miles per hour,” Lewis said. “You couldn’t see but about 30 feet in front of you. A car in front of us stopped and it piled up from there. I rolled my window down and you could just hear car after car crashing behind us. My family was able to get up to a bank untouched.”

Miraculously, Joan Jenkins and her husband from Canada walked away without injury after being hit not once, but twice by separate tractor trailers. Jenkins said the couple was traveling to Florida when the chain reaction started. She said her car was sideswiped by a UPS truck before being run over by another tractor trailer.

“We feel very lucky. We had stopped after we saw a crash in front of us. A UPS truck came beside us and sideswiped our car. In front of us, another tractor trailer had wrecked and caught on fire,” Jenkins said. “After we got hit, we got out and my husband started screaming for us to run. Our thought was just to get out of there. We heard the cars crashing behind us. Another truck came and ran over top of our car. We were so thankful we weren’t hurt. We were just happy we were able to send messages to our children and say we were okay. It was unbelievable.”

Conroy said the northbound lanes of Interstate 77 also were closed in order to prevent any more accidents.

“The reason we do that is we have found in the past when you open it up to traffic, people come by looking at the lights and to see what’s going on,” Conroy said. “You still have dense fog and it leads to more wrecks. That is why we shut it down.”

Northbound lanes also were closed in order to allow emergency vehicles to get to and from the southbound lanes as quickly and safely as possible. Detours were put in place to re-direct I-77 traffic in both directions, causing major backups on U.S. 52 in Carroll County. Southbound lanes will remain closed for a significant amount of time as troopers investigate the crashes and get vehicles removed from the scene. Those needing to travel through Carroll County on I-77 are advised to make alternate travel plans and/or anticipate significant delays, the Virginia State Police said Sunday.

The names of those who lost their lives in the pileup had not been released as of Sunday night.

American Red Cross disaster workers, in coordination with local emergency management in Hillsville, are providing shelter for those impacted by the traffic accident on I-77 at the Hillsville VFW. Additional disaster workers, feeding vehicles and cots and blankets are en route. The Red Cross is also providing meals for the families as well as first responders.

A similar incident occured on Nov. 16, 2010, at the 7 mile marker of I-77 southbound in Fancy Gap that involved 75 vehicles and left two dead.